This summer, a mature Christian woman approached me here in the foyer and asked me about the two Gods. You know, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. The god of the Old Testament, nobody's sure of his name, but he's the really angry one. The God of the New Testament, the nice one, well his name is Jesus Christ, right?
As long as I can remember people have talked about the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament as if they were different entities. The God of the Old Testament is a God of Justice, of Vengeance, Wrath, Anger, and Righteousness. Sort of like Captain Ahab pursuing Moby Dick.
On the other hand, the God of the New Testament is a God of Mercy, Forgiveness, Gentleness, Meekness, Forbearance, Kindness; a God of Patience, longsuffering. Most of All a God of Love. Sort of like a sweet out-of-touch aunt. Certainly not somebody you'd want backing you in a tough fight.
It's common for people to feel the nature of God is very different in the Old Testament compared to his manifestation in the person of The Christ in the New Testament. Tonight, we'll ask these questions:
1. Is God different?
2. If not, why does it seem so?
3. Is the God of the Old Testament the God of the Jews, and the God of the Jews only?
4. Is the God of the NT the God of everyone except the Jews?
First let's jump to the short answers, then we'll go a little deeper.
1. Is God different? No. The God of the OT is just as loving and full of mercy as the God of the NT. And, the God of the NT has the same threats and warnings as the God of the OT.
2. Why does it seem they are different? The short answer is the OT covers 20 centuries of human malfeasance for God to be cranky about; the NT barely one century. But the betrayals, lack of faith, selfishness, stupidity, quarrelsomeness, contention and error found in the OT are all there in the NT too. God is just as unhappy with unrepentant wrongdoers in the NT – and in today's world -- as he was in OT times. Just as slow to anger and just as quick to forgive. But, God expects we will grow up by now.
3. Is the God of the Old Testament the God of the Jews, and the God of the Jews only? No, God's promise again and again is that he is using the Jews as a light to the nations; that the promise will go out to all nations; that all people are his. The Jews just happened to be first. Could have been the Scots.
4. Is the God of the NT the God of everyone except the Jews? No. Same answer and, by the way, the Jews show up all through the NT and at the very end in the final Book of Revelation.
So those are the short answers. But let's look a bit further. How come we have such a different view of God in the Old Testament and God in the New Testament? Maybe we've gotten a little careless in our remembering and are just relying on the over-simplified teachings of our early Sunday school teachers. Let's try a little quiz. Don't worry, I won't call on any of you, but as I read these few verses, see if they don't challenge those expectations we hold.
First: the Lord is slow to anger and rich in kindness, forgiving wickedness and crime. That's Old Testament. (Num 14:18)
How about: " I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! …I have not come to establish peace but division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law." New Testament now. That's Jesus in Luke 12:49.
And: …Thus the Lord passed before [him] and cried out, "The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin." (Exod 34:6)
Or: If you, O Lord, laid bare our guilt, who could endure it? But you are forgiving, God of Israel." (Ps 129:3)
Those sure sound like the God of love and forgiveness we all need.
Or: You hypocrites! you know how to interpret the earth and sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time? … I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny. Sounds pretty vengeful and scary, but that's Jesus in Luke 12:54.
That's enough verses just now, but the NT features plenty of talk on TOUGHNESS, WRATH, FIRE, BURNING, THIRST, WAILING, GNASHING OF TEETH, DIVISION. How about "I BRING A SWORD," or HATE FATHER AND MOTHER, or even "LET THE DEAD BURY THEIR DEAD." Jesus' teachings and the other new testament books don't always sound like our one-liner that "God is Love." On the other hand, the Old Bible is filled with verses on MERCY, TENDERNESS, LOVE, EVERLASTING MERCY, and PROMISES FOREVER. Again, maybe it's our one-liner that's off target.
So what gives? I suspect that some of it just goes back to our early Sunday school days and what we first learned as children. Sometimes we get a little stuck in that first point of view. In fact, I think that the OT is God's first early teaching to us humans, when we were spiritual children at best. As I look at it, our loving God first attracted humanity's attention that he was there. Then he laid out some rules to keep us out of trouble while we grew up. As a good teacher, he punished infractions and rewarded us when we behaved well. Then, when we grew up a bit more, he freed us from the rules and allowed us to visit and live with him as a friend.
When I was a child living on a farm in Stoneham, just north of Boston, we had Sunday School. I thought it was odd then that Jews had Sunday School. But I guess that was an accommodation to the reality that there were only a few Jewish families in town. We had no synagogue, no weekly services. But we had Sunday school, because everyone else in town went to church on Sunday, I suppose. A lovely woman, Ruth Gerrish provided us religious education of sorts. Ruth was a schoolteacher in a neighboring town. Because of her profession, Ruth became our Sunday school teacher. Class was in Ruth's house. We few kids sat in bridge chairs, and learned about the Bible. We didn't call it the Old Testament, just "the Bible." Who knew there was a new edition?
I went to Temple twice a year in Chelsea, where my grandparents lived. On Rosh Hashona, New Year, and especially ten days later, on Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, we recited the list of powers and judgments God called down upon us, and we prayed to be spared this Severe Decree. We acknowledged that it was God alone who decided, as the litany went in High Holy Day prayer books:
On the first day of the year it is inscribed, and on the Day of Atonement it is sealed, how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who at the measure of man's days and who before it; who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by the sword, who by wild beasts, who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning…
Can you wonder I had an idea of God as terrible and awful? This was pretty vivid stuff for a young boy. I had nightmares about God as a child. He scared me to Death.
Yet, the concluding sentence was always said loudly, in capital letters, BUT PENITENCE, PRAYER AND CHARITY AVERT THE SEVERE DECREE.
I vigorously prayed to, "Avert the severe decree", and be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year. Touch and go, wasn't it? No wonder God got a reputation for being tough. And I bet that any young child hearing the Old Testament stories sees there's a lot of rules and a lot of punishment being meted out. This is stuff kids understand. Big time. But I think it is also a story of God's teaching to very young humanity, very young spiritually at the least.
As a Species, Homo sapiens is probably more aptly named Homo Adolescence. We did not spring from the caves, savannah and forests into mature social structures with literature, art, philosophy and good government. We more likely crawled our way slowly into skin tents and noticed things could be planted and harvested for a more certain food supply. Mankind as a whole has slowly grown and matured. As a whole species, I think humanity is only a little past Bar Mitzvah age, 13 or 14 years old. All of humanity may be, on average, in Early Adolescence. Of course, if you look at the news, that may be generous. In OT times, Mankind, as a whole People, was a little child. God lovingly began to teach us, as we teach our children. We teach lovingly, but firmly, because children need to learn what is good for them and what is bad for them. In the same way, God gave us all the Law, the Old Testament, to teach us to distinguish between Holy and Profane. Between that which would help us and that which would hurt us.
We teach our three and four year old children about the dangers of the world – what is permitted, what is not permitted. We teach them this not because we don't love them. We teach our children rules for their safety. Don't run out into the street. Don't touch the hot stove. Don't eat off the floor. Don't hit your baby brother. We teach these rules lovingly, but we yell and threaten sometimes too, because this is all urgent. But if the child – as children will – disobeys, we discipline him to show we mean it! Our purpose in discipline is not to hurt or punish, but to instruct, so that the child can safely grow up to become a mature human person.
God gave us the Law to teach us not to run out into the street. To become Holy. At least to know what Holy is. What was permissible in pagan cultures was not going to help us grow up into mature Peoples. Rape, extortion, murder, theft, lying, lack of respect for the elderly, envy, adultery, greed, grabbing, cheating were the rule of the day in the world of 2,000 B.C. Maybe large parts of our own contemporary culture still lean in these directions. But at least we now know it's wrong. These things are wrong not only because of their social impact, that's the first true level. These sins are sins also because they take us in the wrong spiritual direction. Our loving God, wanting more for and from us, has a better idea.
When we were in Egypt, it was God who brought us into Egypt. Actually, at the time we went in, we thought it was a good deal. Canaan was in drought and famine, Joseph was steward. Then we were made slaves. God released us, brought us through the Red Sea and gave us the Law to teach us rudiments of Holiness.
But holiness didn't come easy. "Let's make a golden Idol! Let's Party! How about something better to eat than this Manna stuff! Let's oppress the poor! Let's trip out on Power! Let's grab what we can! And finally, Let's worship Tradition!"
So there's a lot of the OT that focuses on these fractious Jews and how God rewarded and punished and taught them through some 2000 years of human and spiritual childhood. Will they never grow up? Maybe that last, "Let's worship Tradition" was the final straw. God saw us worshiping the rulebook, but not living the rules. But what God asked of us was not lip service or mechanical rote performance of the rituals. We're to live in the spirit of his rules. And I will delight in your commands, which I love, And I will lift up my hands to your commands and MEDITATE ON YOUR STATUTES. (PS 119)
But humans stayed in that trap of worshiping the rule book, not taking the rules inside us. God finally freed us from that trap. Made us really free. He sent freedom to Israel in the person of Jesus, the Christ. This freedom from the bondage of God's Law is what Paul speaks of in Galatians, Christ sets us free. This freedom from the Law doesn't abolish the Law, it shows us what the Law points to.
So in the NT, God starts to treat humans like grownups. And this is the point of this talk tonight. God doesn't change. It's us that are called to change. It's time for us to grow up. In the New Testament, God starts to treat us as grown-ups. This doesn't mean the Law is over and done with. It's just we shouldn't have to spend all our energy focused on not running out into the street and not touching hot stoves. We should be ready now for the challenge of becoming fully adult, awake, growing spiritual human beings. There is more, much more, than not disobeying safety rules. Our boundaries have been extended. We are no longer limited to just following the Law. But God calls us and requires us to do more. God speaking in the person of Jesus, is TOUGH, just as tough as he was in his OT appearances. But he's speaking to us as spiritual adults.
Paul in Hebrews tells us it's time to stop being children needing milk. That we ought to be teachers by now, but we act as if we are babies. It's time to move on to spiritual meat. Enough, Paul says, enough of these ABC's of baptism, of repentance, of faith towards God, laying on of hands, of resurrection from the dead and eternal judgment. These are all good and necessary, but there is more and better. The Law made nothing perfect, but now there is a better hope by which we may draw close to God.
In Ephesians, Paul reveals the answer. Two thousand years after God spoke to Noah and Abraham, Paul says, This mystery of Christ was not revealed to humans in earlier generations. And as the Church Fathers taught about Christ, God became human in order to make human beings God. So who changed? God? No. Us. As children of God, we are invited and coaxed into a lifetime of spiritual growth. God has invited us to "come and dine" with him. As friends. As grown-up children. But to become full spiritual human beings, growing up children of God, co-heirs with Jesus, we are called to finally confront and put to death our old animal nature. Not just contain it.
Now this is no easy trick. There is no way we can do this ourselves. But, we have some good friends with us ready to help if we ask.
Now let's move on to the other questions we started with: Is the God of the Old Testament the God of the Jews, and the God of the Jews only? And, Is the God of the NT the God of everyone except the Jews?
Basically, what we're asking is didn't the NT just replace the OT? Obviously the answer is no. We Christians kept the OT as part of our Bible. We didn't throw it out. But supersession is a seductive concept. When it gets too tough intellectually and emotionally to reconcile Old Testament laws and traditions with New Testament freedoms, it's simpler to just say, "that's over". We've got the promise now. Nyah, nyah. We've got it, you lost it. This is often an undercurrent in exaggerating the apparent conflict between Judaism and the OT and Christianity and the NT.
But the Jews didn't own the promise in the OT and they didn't lose the promise when Christ appeared. They were simply the tool God used to get the attention of all peoples. Could have been anyone. Let's try a mental exercise. Suppose instead of Moses God appeared to Donald, a good Scot, in, say, a burning brier bush in a heather field. The Scots would have become the first humans to be in touch with the Creator. The Old Testament might have been called The Hanbuik of Donald, rather than the Books of Moses. Not that Scots are stubborn traditionalists, but I imagine if a few thousand years later Angus the Christ had emerged in Glasgow and confronted these Old Hanbuik Scots, and turned their traditions inside out, on its head, many of the Scots might have resisted. And to this day, there no doubt would be Old Hanbuik Scots living the old Hanbuik Law faithfully. Theses old Scots would still have their handbook promise; they'd just struggle as humans, to move forward with Angus.
Back in our own story, at the right time God revealed his real plan. EVERYBODY. God did not change. The Old Testament God didn't become the New Testament God. He opened his door and invited everyone in. This is the "divination" of the individual human being, and of humanity itself. As the Church Fathers taught, "God became human in order to make human beings God. So who changed? God? No. Us. God has invited us to "come and dine" with him. As friends. But to get there, we have a struggle, a struggle with tradition and human reasoning. Right after teaching the Beatitudes, Jesus tells us straight out: Enter by the narrow gate. Wide is the gate and broad the road that leads to destruction. and many enter that way; narrow is the gate and constricted the road that leads to life, and those who find them are few. And again, Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of my heavenly Father. When the day comes, many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and in your name perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Out of my sight; your deeds are evil!'
Same God. Same message. What is the message? Grow up! Grow up spiritually. We still don't want to listen. We try to simplify God, to shape God into something we can manage more easily. A timid shepherd, say. God is serious. This is an adult thing. Most religions begin serious religious education at 12 or 13 or so – the Age of Reason. I've noticed in many Christian churches we END religious study at 12 or 13. Thus, at a time when we mature and need a grown-up God to help us deal with these grown-up issues, we have instead a child's image of a gentle undemanding God, no work, just love.
Growing up is doing the difficult work of sanctification and holiness. You and I can't do it alone. All these enemies battled in the Bible, these enemies are a stand-in, a figure for the spiritual battle you and I as adults have to fight daily. We each have internal enemies to overcome. When we grow up spiritually we see the consistent message God has for us, Old Testament and New, is there is a terrific daily battle to be fought against our human natures. Another word for Human Nature is Original Sin. We all have a carryover from our childhood excesses of our fantastic, needs for power and control, for physical security and for affection and pleasure. These childhood demands are unsatisfiable, and we often carry these over into our adult life in more subtle forms. Taken together this carry-over from our Animal Nature is our Original Sin. These demands do not wish us well. God is the divine therapist, the healer who is eager to release us from these burdens. That's repentance and forgiveness. Of course, we have to ask him to do it. Prayer and study, attentive to the presence of God is how we do it. The Old Testament announced it to Humanity; the New Testament, in the fullness of time, through Christ, opens the door to all.
Let's listen to what God has for us both in the Old and in the New Testaments: As Isaiah tells us in the Old Testament: For since the beginning of the world [men] have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, [what] he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him. (64:4) And Paul in the New Testament tells you and me, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. (2:9)
Doesn't that sound like the very same God?